Review: Selma Arts Center’s ‘Puffs’ gives a boy named Harry a close comic shave
While watching Selma Arts Center’s amusing production of “Puffs,” I knew I was operating a few dores short of a dumble when this revelation came from the stage near the end of the first act:
As part of the big wizard competition, Cedric would be going into a maze.
There were gentle groans from the audience. Someone gasped. If ladies still wore pearls to Saturday matinees in Selma, at least one would have clutched hers. Obviously, something bad was going to happen to Cedric.
I had no idea what.
But, I have to say it was fun to laugh at the people who were laughing. They obviously got the A-level insider “Harry Potter” reference. This fast-paced satirical play is best appreciated by those who are intimately familiar with the books and movies.
If you are delighted when one character says, “The headmaster looks different this year,” this show is for you. (If you recall in the movie series, the actor portraying the head of Hogwarts passed away, so another was quietly installed in his place.)
And if not — if your familiarity with the material, like mine, is limited to a rudimentary pop-culture knowledge and the glimmerings of recall from a one-time viewing of each entry in the film franchise — it’s still fun to sit back and absorb the silliness. (“Existential crisis!” mutters a wizard-in-training, a play on the famous “Expelliarmus” spell. That’s the kind of stuff I love.)
“Puffs” is subtitled “Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” and part of the appeal of Matt Cox’s script — which was a big hit Off-Broadway — is connecting the dots to All Things Harry. Cox’s conceit is that we get to focus mainly on the background characters in the Potter universe, most specifically members of the Puffs, one of the four houses at the wizarding school. (Which is, of course, short for Hufflepuffs. Hey, even I knew that.)
The Puffs, we are reminded, are solid, able, worthy individuals, but they’re also a bit drab and forgettable. Even if you don’t get most of the HP references, it’s easy to connect with the cheery underdog structure of the plot.
We focus on a trio of friends: Wayne (Josh Plowman), Megan (a standout Nwachukwu Oputa) and Oliver (an endearing Adam Chavez), who band together in the way that underdogs do. They aren’t dumb. They immediately grasp their anemic social status at a school that values good magic genes over dumb stuff like, say, math. (In that regard, this Hogwarts lookalike school is not unlike those American powerhouse football universities known not for academics but churning out NFL stars.) But these friends endure, and their adventures keep our interest.
Co-directors Adam Chavez and Ben Deghand keep things sailing along at sketch-comedy pace, though the production does seem a bit one-note in terms of tempo. (Some of the line readings are scream-shouted, rushing by without landing with much impact.)
And I have a confession: My least favorite part of almost all the “Harry Potter” movies is the last half-hour of each, which always seems to devolve into endless CGI battles and interminable good-versus-evil machinations. “Puffs” runs at least 20 minutes too long, much of which can be blamed on an extended chase-scene finale that seems as long as J.K. Rowling’s list of assets.
But, overall, Chavez and Deghand have whipped up a nifty theatrical experience that ranges from bare-bones cheap (I think the dragon was wearing a shower curtain) to slick and sophisticated (Dan Aldape’s clever lighting design includes a smoky 3-D effect that made me swear I was seeing ghosts). The set (by Erik Andersen and Nicolette C. Andersen) includes a wonderful sampling of those ancestor portraits that “Harry” fans know and love, and Adrian Oceguera’s sound design is a treat.
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Plowman is a particular delight as the beleaguered but resolute Wayne. Taylor Delgado adds a rich note as the all-knowing Narrator. The ensemble is strong, with my funny bone especially tickled by a wildly likable Steven Hayes (whose second-act monologue is a triumph of bizarre, rollicking weirdness), Lexis Hamilton (who plays multiple characters with a graceful comedienne’s flair) and Chris Ortiz-Belcher, whose ability to flit from a razor-sharp impression of Severus Snape to a goofball Puff is nothing short of inspiring.
And then there’s Cedric. Poor, poor Cedric. As played by the indefatigable Michael Brandon Fidalgo, whom I swear I’ve seen on stage 27 times in the past six months, the character is the most memorable of the show — until Act 2, when Fidalgo switches gears to play the Boss from Hell. Does anyone have the number for HR? Make sure it’s on speed-dial.